Two mornings a week I write in the atrium of our local nature center. There is free coffee and a view of the marsh. School groups pass through the building most mornings, but they seldom disrupt my solitude for more than a few minutes. The kids get a quick tour of the place, then head outside. Usually I work on a chapter for the book I’m writing, but this morning I’ve set aside the time to write this week’s blog.

Last Thursday I was at my favorite table in the nature center (next to a big window overlooking the marsh) when an old man walked into the building and asked me whether I knew anything about acorns. “Some,” I said. “Do you have a specific question?”

“I found many acorns from two different trees lying side by side on the ground,” he said. “The acorns from one of the trees all had little roots sticking out, and these roots were burrowing themselves into the ground. The acorns from the other tree weren’t doing anything. Do you know why this would happen?” 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose different species of oak germinate at different times of the year, but that’s only a guess.”

“I took a picture,” the man replied, and he showed me a photo of two small piles of acorns. All of the acorns were without caps, and I could not estimate their size from the photograph. Even if I’d had a tree guide in front of me, which I didn’t, I’m not sure that I could have identified the exact species just from the photo. That didn’t matter, as it was obvious from the photo that the acorns that hadn’t sprouted all had pinholes in them.

“This is interesting,” I said. “There is an insect that lays her eggs inside acorns. It’s called an acorn weevil. I didn’t know they preferred one species of oak over another, but they must. The acorns that aren’t sprouting have been destroyed by a bug inside.”

“Thank you,” the man said. “What is your job here?” 

“I don’t work here. I’m retired.” 

“What did you do before you retired?”

“Nature center kind of stuff,” I said, “but not here at this nature center. I taught environmental education and outdoor recreation at the university. I taught students how to paddle, hike, and backpack.”

“Did you teach climbing?” the man asked.

“Not rock climbing,” I said, “but I did run the ropes course on campus for a while.”

“What is your name?”

“Steve,” I said.

“Do you have a Chinese wife?” the man asked.

“She’s Taiwanese, but yeah.”

“I remember you,” the man said. “I am Shoua.  I was the first Americorps worker on the ropes course. That was over twenty years ago.” Shoua was Hmong, and once he mentioned the ropes course, I did remember a Hmong belayer on our staff – but I would have never recognized this old man as him. After a few minutes of conversation and an exchange of email addresses, Shoua went on his way. 

 All that morning there had been a meeting going on in the large meeting room adjacent the atrium. When I’d first shown up around 8 am, there were a dozen sheriff vehicles from La Crosse and Vernon Counties in the parking lot, so I assumed the meeting was a training workshop for new recruits. Soon after Shoua left, a man from the workshop starting pulling young men and women one at a time into the atrium and grilling them with the same kinds of questions I get asked when the nurse at my doctor’s office tests me for dementia .

“What day is it today?”


“I need month, date, and year.” My first thought was that today is my mom’s birthday, but otherwise I wouldn’t have known the date. All of the people questioned knew the date immediately.

The man followed up by asking a series of questions in rapid succession. “Who is the President?” “Who is the Vice President?” “Who were the last three Presidents before the current President?”

His final question was, “I am going to give you four numbers. I want you to say the four numbers back to me, but I want you to repeat them to me in reverse order. If I said fifteen, three, six, twenty-one, you’d say twenty-one, six, three, fifteen. Your numbers are twenty-eight, ten, forty-five, sixty-four.” I had to hear the same numbers three different times before I could mentally repeat them back in reverse order, but all of the applicants accomplished the task easily. There was one person, however, who got the Vice President question wrong. “Ahh, man,” the young woman said. “I can’t think of her name.”

During a break, all of the young deputies came into the atrium for coffee, so I asked a couple of them whether they were new recruits going through initial training. “No,” they said. “All of us are already on the job. This is training about how to deal with people with mental health issues.” 

At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but an hour later I wondered how repeating four numbers in reverse order helps law enforcement to deal with people with mental illness.

Steven Simpson